More than 50 years after it started serving hamburgers, fries and homemade onion rings to the Oak Forest area, Mytiburger has gone back to its roots.
Employees at the no-frills greasy spoon, located at 2211 W. 43rd St., started serving as carhops on Tuesday, albeit without roller skates like their predecessors in the late 1960s. Customers drove up to the small restaurant and were greeted outside by members of the Mytiburger staff, who took orders and returned a little while later with fresh food made to-go.
The throwback style of service was not by choice. Starting Tuesday morning, all restaurants in Houston and Harris County were ordered to close their dining rooms and restrict their businesses to takeout, delivery and drive-through service in an attempt to limit crowds and slow the spread of COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus that is upending ways of life all across the globe.
“I’m trying to put a nice spin on it, but it’s hard,” said Mytiburger owner Shawn Salyers, an Army veteran. “You’ve got to improvise, adapt and overcome. I’m ex-military, so that’s what we do.”
Eateries aren’t the only businesses affected by the social distancing edict made Monday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who followed the lead of government officials in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. All bars and nightclubs in the city and county were ordered to close Tuesday for a period of at least 15 days, the same span as the restaurant restrictions.
Heights resident Gary Mosley is the owner of the Creek Group, which manages five bar-and-grill concepts in the Heights, Washington Avenue and River Oaks areas. They typically are hot spots during happy hour and on weekends, but now they are forced shut down the bar portion of their operation and focus on to-go food orders.
Mosley said he hopes the company – which includes Cactus Cove, Canyon Creek Café Bar & Grill, Cedar Creek Bar & Grill and Onion Creek Coffeehouse Bar & Lounge – can make do and keep all of its 200-plus employees. But he’s worried about the days and weeks to come, especially because monthly state sales tax payments were due on Friday.
“We don’t know how this to-go is going to go to pay our employees. We’re kind of lost right now,” Mosley said. “So it could be good, we could sustain with to-gos, or we could not get a lot of to-gos. We’re not McDonald’s or Whataburger.”
While acknowledging that the bar and restaurant restrictions have a significant financial impact on those businesses, Hidalgo and Turner said the measures are necessary in an attempt to avoid a healthcare crisis in the Houston region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday issued national guidelines limiting public gatherings to 10 or fewer people as cases of COVID-19 continue to spike in the U.S. like they have in other parts of the world.
According to the World Health Organization, which last week declared the outbreak a pandemic, there have been more than 194,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 164 different countries, including more than 4,300 cases in the U.S. The disease has led to more than 7,800 deaths globally.
The number of positive COVID-19 tests in the Houston area surpassed 30 this week, and local officials are scrambling to expand testing with the expectation that many more people are infected.
“The reality is we’re at a pivotal point right now,” Hidalgo said. “The decisions we make, the decisions you make, to go out in groups and whether to stay home will very much determine whether people live or die.”
Area bar and restaurant owners hope their businesses are not killed off in the process. Mosley said closures beyond two weeks will be “devastating” for most bars and restaurants because revenues will decrease while overhead costs remain steady.
That sentiment was echoed by Naro Mak, the owner of Hartz Krispy Chicken Buffet at 1215 Pinemont Dr. But Mak, The Leader of the Year in 2018, said he will not cut his hours of operation or the hours of his employees, even if that means taking a personal pay cut. He’s also among the area restaurant owners who are offering incentives to try to drum up business.
For every customer who spends at least $40 at Hartz, Mak said he will provide a 10-piece chicken meal with mashed potatoes and rolls to a family in need. If people send him at least $40 through an electronic payment app, Mak said he will provide two of those meals for families in need.
“I ain’t asking for a handout, brother, but I need some help,” he said. “And if they’re going to spend money on me, I’m going to continue to take care of my community, man.”
Like Salyers at Mytiburger, the owner of Harold’s Restaurant, Bar & Rooftop Terrace on 19th Street is trying to adapt and make the most of an unenviable situation. Alli Jarrett posted a picture of herself wearing a pizza costume on Facebook, also letting community members know that she might personally deliver food, beer or wine ordered from her business.
For every to-go order worth at least $50, Harold’s said it would offer a $20 gift certificate.
“Surely a pizza mascot can bring some smiles to a horrible situation for all human beings right now,” Jarrett wrote, ending her post with the hashtag #washyourhands.